When news of Marcel Kittel’s abrupt withdrawal from the Giro d’Italia filtered around Giovinazzo shortly before the start of stage 4, logic dictated that Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) was quickly installed as the favourite for the win, but the Frenchman was forced to endure a late scare before landing his first ever Grand Tour stage victory in Bari.
All afternoon, debate had raged in the peloton over the viability of racing on a technical finishing circuit made slippery by sudden rain. It was eventually decreed that the final lap would be neutralised and the sprint could proceed as normal thereafter but with a shade under 13 kilometres to race, it looked as though Bouhanni would not be taking part in it.
"I had a front wheel puncture and I broke my rear wheel. My team car was 16th in the convoy so I had to wait a long time on the side of the road," Bouhanni explained. "Laurent Pichon waited for me and did huge work to bring me back through the cars and up to the rear of the peloton."
Bouhanni was nonplussed when asked if he had obeyed the letter of the law regarding drafting or interpreted its spirit during his trek back onto the rear of the bunch, pointing out that it was hardly in his plans to change bikes just as the speed was beginning to rise.
"I was with my teammate Pichon and we were on the left of the road and the cars were on the right," Bouhanni said. "It’s certainly not an advantage to puncture with 13 kilometres to go and find that your team car is 30 or 40 seconds behind the peloton."
Although Bouhanni succeeded in latching back on just as the final lap of the circuit began, his travails were still not at an end. With time now frozen for the general classification contenders, the sprinters’ teams were free to come to the front and the speed ratcheted up just as the heaviest rain of the day began to fall.
"It was very dangerous on the last lap because the roads were very wet," said Bouhanni, whose FDJ guard deposited him at the head of the field just as a crash was about the split it once again. When Cannondale’s Daniele Ratto’s wheels slid from under him with three kilometres remaining, Bouhanni was among those held up, although – crucially – he did succeed in staying upright.
"I clipped against the pavement and I had to unclip from my pedals but I managed to stay up, although I had to slow down and then get going again," Bouhanni said. "Giant-Shimano had a gap at the front after that and I had to make a big, big effort to get up to them again."
With four Giant-Shimano riders powering clear at the front of the race, it looked as though the Dutch team would continue its winning streak even in the absence of Kittel but Bouhanni summoned up the strength to latch back on inside the final kilometre. After diving for the wheel of Luka Mezgec, Bouhanni unleashed a ferocious sprint with 200 metres to go and – not unlike Kittel’s efforts in Belfast and Dublin – overhauled an enormous deficit on Tom Veelers within sight of the line.
Bouhanni’s victory was his first in a Grand Tour after three previous attempts. Twelve months ago, he abandoned the Giro in order to prepare for his debut Tour de France. This time around, with Arnaud Démare vying for a place in FDJ’s July plans, with Kittel out of the Giro and with the red jersey of points classification leader on his back, Bouhanni might well be tempted to extend his stay until Trieste.
"Being the best sprinter is always something important and I’ll keep looking for points in the sprints to come," he said. "I’ll try to defend the jersey as best I can."